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The City and the Writer: In Bogotá with Juan Gabriel Vásquez

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities 


Can you describe the mood of Bogotá as you feel/see it?

It's a city fighting to recover saneness. Over the last two generations, the people of Bogotá have remained as polite as always, but an undertow of violence (violence seen and remembered) has grown steadily. The mood is therefore tense: strained at best, and openly hostile in many neighborhoods. The city is like a host trying to be civil after the party has gone terribly wrong.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city? 

I was seventeen the first time I saw somebody being shot. I will never forget that moment, perhaps because it didn't bother me that much: I'd grown up knowing that kind of thing happened in my city. I had just started my Law studies; we were in the middle of a session about political ideas, and I remember distinctly how the teacher asked us to settle down after the shooting so we could go on talking about Plato. And we did settle down. That's what's heartbreaking.  

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How wonderful the city is around the New Year. The open skies, the light, the absence of rain . . . and of people. Bogotá's best moments are when everybody else is on vacation. 

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The great poet José Asunción Silva, who committed suicide in 1896, is one of the great modernists in the Spanish language. Álvaro Mutis has written some of the best poetry in Latin America, although his is better known for his novels (which are not set in Bogotá). Antonio Caballero's only novel, Sin remedio, is a modern classic. I should say many great writers have written in or about Bogotá, but they have not been from Bogotá: Aurelio Arturo was from Pasto, in the south; León de Greiff came from Medellín. 

Is there a place here you return to often?

The small cultural centre called Casa de Poesía Silva, in downtown Bogotá, is a place I love. José Asunción Silva shot himself in the heart in one of the rooms; in another one, you can sit down and listen to wonderful recordings of Spanish and Latin American poetry read by the authors. And it's free of charge. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

See my last answer.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are many, but one in particular has always fascinated me. It is the neighborhood called La Candelaria, where the city was founded in 1538 and where history breathes in every street. In architecture and feeling it's like a little town, with very clear borders and a different idiosyncrasy. 

Where does passion live here?

. . . .

What is the title of one of your works about Bogotá and what inspired it exactly?

The Sound of Things Falling is a novel “about” (quotation marks are indispensable) the years of terrorism in Bogotá. For a long decade beginning roughly in 1984, the city lived in fear: drug lord Pablo Escobar had declared a personal war against the Colombian government, bombing shopping malls and commercial airplanes besides government targets. That changed my generation; the novel is an attempt to understand that transformation.  

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bogotá does an outside exist?”

I left Colombia in 1996, when I was twenty-three. I have since lived in France, Belgium, and Spain, but I was educated in English with a heavy American accent. I've spent my life trying to figure out what this strange mixture of languages and cultures means; sometimes, I must say, I feel as if outside was all there is.


More on Bogotá in The City and The Writer:

Published Sep 17, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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